Standing in Antietam National Cemetery, in a damp field crisscrossed by nearly 5,000 headstones as evenly spaced as any formation ever made by the soldiers they represent, I found myself reflecting on gratitude.
It happened again weeks later during a chat with a young activist about whether African Americans should be thankful to white people who fought, and still fight, for black people's rights. "No," she replied.
That's especially interesting when you consider that she's white and fights for black folks' rights every day.
My recent visit to Antietam National Cemetery, burial site for Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, was unplanned. Some 23,110 soldiers representing both of the fractured nation's factions were killed, wounded or listed as missing on the nation's bloodiest day.
Though it wasn't on our itinerary during a visit to nearby Hagerstown, my husband and I somehow found ourselves where Americans often end up:
Caught up in the Civil War -- at one of its myriad battle sites or in the ceaseless stream of books, TV specials, movies and lectures about this seminal American conflict. Recently, I asked my son, 17, if he was interested in Hollywood's latest, "Gods and Generals."
"Kinda," he said. "But why did they think people would sit through four whole hours?"
Because it's the Civil War. Because it's the struggle that most defined the nation that we would become. Because the war's symbolic battles, God help us, are still being fought.
Leaving the cemetery, my husband I took back roads home, briefly getting lost. Being black and lost in backcountry Maryland -- or Louisiana or Illinois -- means experiencing a different Civil War remnant: the creeping wariness African Americans have long felt based on bad things that happened to other blacks on little-traversed roads.
For all its changes, the Civil War in one way left us as it found us: divided by skin color and the madness attached to it.
But standing before those unadorned headstones, over the graves of those who'd given what their president at Gettysburg called "the last full measure of devotion" in the battle that historians say led to the Emancipation Proclamation, it was impossible not to be moved.
Weeks later, I mentioned my Antietam musings to Windy Cooler, 26, a Montgomery, Ala., community organizer. Just as I'm constantly amazed by all that African Americans have survived and accomplished, I said, I'm struck by whites who fought -- and sometimes died -- for my rights.
"But it's the obligation of privileged people to help those who are oppressed," countered Windy, who grew up poor herself. She cited a wealthy white Alabaman who for years traded on having indirectly helped the movement. "This woman loved the status she got from being a little bit helpful" after a lifetime of reaping segregation's benefits.
"In Montgomery, things are named after her."
Cooler shrugged. "Too often, people make a bigger deal out of white people's civil rights contributions than those of black people. Even though they owed them for having participated in a system that for years only benefited them."
The irony was delicious: the black woman expressing gratitude for certain white people's sacrifices, the white woman arguing that some white folks get too much credit.
We were both right.
That some folks congratulate white activists while downplaying black freedom fighters who were the struggle's backbone is unquestioned. Remember "Mississippi Burning" and the anti-apartheid drama "Cry Freedom"?
But why not appreciate Viola Liuzzo, the white Detroit mother of five who in 1965 left her comfortable life to fight for civil rights in Alabama and was murdered by Klansmen? At Antietam, why not admire men -- some younger than my film-buff son -- who could easily have bought their era's rampant lies about white superiority? Many of these soldiers were rural types on their first trips away from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Indiana. Some fought for reasons that had nothing to do with abolition.
But others, as their letters and diaries showed, fought because they knew slavery was wrong. Because they knew black people were people. They died proving it.
Indeed, Windy has a point when she says, "Rather than praise those who meet their obligations, we should criticize those who fail to meet them. . . . People doing the right thing shouldn't be more celebrated than the people who overcome oppression to stand up for themselves."
Yet what I felt in that field is true.
Gratitude to those who do right is always appropriate. Because it's far too easy to do wrong. In fact, people need praise; it's like water for our ever-parched souls. Whether we're praising our 7-year-olds for telling difficult truths or admiring boys long dead for giving their lives for larger-than-life principles, we should recognize:
The choice to do right should be celebrated because it is a choice.
One that, too often, we fail to make.